Jailed Oil Tycoon Khodorkovsky Is ‘Perfect Martyr’: Interview

“Khodorkovsky,” a documentary about the former billionaire chief of Yukos Oil Co., grabbed headlines even before its premiere at the Berlin Film Festival when thieves stole it from the director’s Berlin apartment.

It was the second attempt to steal the movie, according to Cyril Tuschi, who has been working on it for five years. Funded by German television, the film portrays Mikhail Khodorkovsky, 47, as a man who has evolved, as the press release puts it, “from a perfect socialist to a perfect capitalist and finally, in a Siberian prison, becoming a perfect martyr.”

Tuschi scored interviews with Khodorkovsky’s first wife, his mother, his son, accomplices and the man himself, who has been in jail since 2003 and has been sentenced to stay there until 2017. They paint a picture of a charismatic, authoritative Russian who ran afoul of another charismatic, authoritative Russian. Tuschi, 42, says it was the man and the dynamics of his relationship with Vladimir Putin that drew him.

“Maybe it’s a romantic projection, but I saw through Khodorkovsky that people can change,” Tuschi said in an interview in Berlin. He said he still hasn’t heard anything from police investigating the break-in.

His film skates over the murky 1990s, an era when Khodorkovsky was becoming Russia’s richest man, founding a bank called Menatep, grabbing stakes in companies, and, along with other oligarchs, pushing the government to create a regulatory and tax framework that benefited them.

Photographer: Laura J Gerlach/Berlin Film Festival via Bloomberg

German film director Cyril Tuschi. His film "Khodorkovsky" premiered at the Berlin Film Festival. Close

German film director Cyril Tuschi. His film "Khodorkovsky" premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

Photographer: Laura J Gerlach/Berlin Film Festival via Bloomberg

German film director Cyril Tuschi. His film "Khodorkovsky" premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.

Yukos Transformation

At the beginning of the last decade, he changed tack, transforming Yukos, then Russia’s second-largest oil producer, into a global operation. He attracted foreign investors, adopted U.S. accounting standards and Yukos shares soared.

Yet he also began supporting parties that opposed Putin and sought to break the state’s monopoly on oil pipelines. In short, he challenged Putin’s authority.

Tuschi’s film shows footage from a meeting between Putin and business leaders in 2003. Khodorkovsky asked a question about corruption at the Kremlin. Putin snarled back that Yukos’s taxes needed examining.

Interviewees say that may have been the moment Putin snapped. Yukos was hit with a $3.4 billion tax bill that year. Khodorkovsky landed in jail, where he’s serving time for fraud and tax evasion. In December last year, he got a second conviction, this time on charges of oil embezzlement. Tuschi interviewed him after that verdict from a cage in the court.

Impossible Theft

Laughing at the “absurdity” of the ruling, Khodorkovsky says it would be impossible to steal the quantity of oil he was accused of taking.

Asked why he didn’t flee Russia before his arrest in 2003, he shrugs. “Naive ideas about justice?” he says.

Interviewees speculate on why Khodorkovsky didn’t flee, as some of his business partners did. The most interesting theory comes from Christian Michel, a former Khodorkovsky adviser. He says the one-time billionaire may want to “redeem himself” through jail time to be in a position to forge a political career when he finally emerges.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said after Khodorkovsky’s second verdict that it “raises serious questions about selective prosecution -- and about the rule of law being overshadowed by political considerations.”

Different Perceptions

Yet in contrast to the outrage of Western observers and Russian expatriates, Tuschi’s film shows ordinary Russians accusing Khodorkovsky of robbing their country and welcoming his imprisonment. Why are perceptions of the former oligarch so different at home and abroad?

“Russian people were brought up with the sense that all rich people are bad, being rich is a sin,” Tuschi says.

That seems too simple. One shadow hanging over the film and never really explored is Putin’s insinuation that Khodorkovsky was implicated in the 1998 murder of Nefteyugansk mayor Vladimir Petukhov. Why wasn’t Khodorkovsky charged with murder if Putin is so convinced he was involved?

“Maybe because they don’t have enough evidence,” said Tuschi. “Or maybe they fear that if they bring up stuff from this time then they will all drown in it, all Russia’s elite.”

Or maybe Putin is holding something in reserve. Khodorkovsky’s lawyer Yury Schmidt said on Jan. 13 that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if prosecutors file murder charges against his client, even if it’s “irrational.”

For more information on the Berlin Film Festival, go to http://www.berlinale.de/en.

(Catherine Hickley is a writer for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are her own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Catherine Hickley in Berlin at chickley@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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